Thursday, December 08, 2011

Used Yachts

Romancing the Stone (1984)
directed by Robert Zemeckis
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Michael Douglas has never looked less like a movie star than here, selling none of the crooked charm that made Harrison Ford the definitive good-guy-gone-to-seed in Temple of Doom, two months later. Temple of Doom was an action picture for people who think young. Kathleen Turner might have held her own as an Indy love interest, but Zemeckis prefers charades with the house cat and a few homely jokes about the private lives of single women.

The plot is by-the-numbers nostalgia for an American era (take your pick) that compelled kids/men/women to read adventure stories to try and escape their daily lives. But an extra, necessary layer of self-awareness doesn't make the plane ride south, so the gummy crowd that likes to catch Romancing the Stone on Sunday afternoon TV sees all this tepid creative confusion and proudly mumbles on about "old-fashioned" comforts. The contrivances are irrelevant, the comedy dull. When Dean Cundey can't add anything more than a lime green glow to the eponymous emerald, something's wrong.

That ungainly sailing ship outside Joan's Manhattan apartment is a good metaphor for the movie. Or would Danny DeVito be better, wasted as he is in small suits and a discarded subplot? It sounds mean, but what about the weirdly violent construction and unnecessarily cruel disposal of the lead villain? He shouldn't miss out on these good times anymore than I should miss my hundred minutes. But here we are together, friends in a pit of crocodiles.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Four Years in the Navy

Bigger Than Life (1956)
directed by Nicholas Ray
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Bigger Than Life is a trim, devastating indictment of a lot of things in this country. Big themes and plenty of righteous, well-targeted anger. The reviewers on IMDb who saw it in theaters and recognized their dads for the first time can tell you all about it. I want to mention the banister, stairwell, and hallway at the end of the film because they remind me of the final confrontation between Michael Myers and Laurie Strode in Halloween.

That pair of scissors - nearly a knitting needle - only adds to the horror. Was it unconscious on John Carpenter's part? Was there something naturally claustrophobic about middle-class architecture that decade? Bigger Than Life is also a movie about the frustration inherent in the modern American medical complex, and the pat condescension in entreaties that patients have "faith" while facing a lifetime of health expenses. What else can low ceilings and sharp corners say?

But Ray still makes room for an old-fashioned, non-metaphorical supper. I'm not talking about the color scheme, which is beautiful, but the relevance of that color - and CinemaScope - once DP Joseph MacDonald steps inside the family kitchen. Yes, I mean the steaks that Walter Matthau brings back from the store before making a yogurt and molasses smoothie in the blender. Thick, bloody, delicious sides of cow. An unbelievable amount of beef, tall as a mountain. Watching Barbara Rush unwrap them is like watching a caveman unwrap a dinosaur.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Blokes R Us

Attack the Block (2011)
directed by Joe Cornish
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

A fun movie starring kids more than a great movie about kids, Attack the Block turns an alien invasion into a kind of fantasy league Nerf war. It takes place in and around a tower block in South London where a teenage gang has just held up a twenty-something nurse on her way home from work. But of course the gang is really just a gaggle of likable, misguided pals who pool their resources - mostly fireworks - to beat back a mob of furry extraterrestrials.

The creatures are scary and people do die, but this is first and foremost a comedy built around interactions between friends. Two pre-adolescent boys tag along and insist that everyone call them made-up names, while the team proper checks in on the local drug lord, who not surprisingly scares everyone out of his wits. I can only assume that Nick Frost chimes in on behalf of the producers, since the rest of the cast is comprised of unknowns. He's cute as always but doesn't quite belong.

Part of me couldn't help imagining Guy Ritchie directing a movie like this with Jason Statham, Gerard Butler, and Vinnie Jones as bad-to-the-bone gangsters forced to fend off an army of tribbles. That would be funny but would feel like a gimmick; Attack the Block is a solid idea well-executed, even if it never quite tops the considerable promise of its premise. But Moses and company in a Home Alone-style high-rise melee against Ritchie's best sing-along crew? Sequel time!

Friday, December 02, 2011

They Ain’t Got No Ocean A Tall

Porco Rosso (1992)
directed by Hayao Miyazaki
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

Porco Rosso is in many ways a minor film premised on an odd contrivance: the hero is cursed to look like a pig. The mythical settings of Princess Mononoke or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind make room for strange sights, but everything here, except for the swine, is more or less familiar. Set along the Adriatic after World War I, the film's architecture and interiors look like postcards from a European vacation.

Miyazaki loves planes but also the look of summer clouds, and his modern cities grow in harmony with a restless natural world. A beach chair beneath the sun becomes a small tableaux of man at peace with the sea and sky. Clear water is a way to watch the refraction of light across a foot as it moves through sand. Even the villains come around, as if no one can resist such picturesque co-existence.

Still, Porco Rosso is the director's most adult picture, and subsequently his saddest. It is also his most romantic, since its protagonist is a well-traveled man in love with an experienced woman. The only kid is a girl with a big crush, but unlike the usual Miyazaki heroine, she helps without inadvertently making herself the star of the movie. The pig simply foists her into the care of his lover after his last big fight, and eventually the girl returns to run the family business back home.

These Ghibli movies hold up where some others I first watched in my early twenties have not. I'm not sure that a child would necessarily understand Casablanca, but isn't this the same feeling, cast with a wider net? I think so.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Pie Hole

Land of the Lost (2009)
directed by Brad Silberling
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I was dog-tired when I watched this, and with my sleepy dog that's saying something. The stakes were low, of course, and I know nothing about the source material. But is that the sort of floundering preface the movie deserves? At this point, hasn't the national conversation about Land of the Lost already pivoted from "box-office disappointment" to "better than expected?"

It reminded me of a movie I might "catch" on a plane, except that I can't think of my last mile-high seat with a screen. I was moderately entertained by and not at all invested in any of the characters, but consistently surprised by Anna Friel's accent, which I think is the way she talks. She and David Thewlis probably made for a very British pair.

Sometimes I try to sound bemused on this blog but it comes across as fatigued, which in spite of what I said about being tired isn't the case. But Land of the Lost is a forgettable, if innocuous, film. At least it wasn't The Romantic Englishwoman, another movie I watched this week but can't find it in me to review, for reasons related to not understanding why Tom Stoppard is a popular writer. Now that was a picture in need of Danny McBride!